Who could have predicted how good Brandon Prust would be last year? I guess the only real answer is Marc Bergevin, but I doubt even he would imagine that Prust wouldn't look out of place on the top line with Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, even for a short period.
When Prust was acquired, the general understanding of his talents was that he was a younger Travis Moen, a fourth line checker with some good defensive ability. What he actually is, is a bottom-six defensive forward who happens to have some very good hands, and can impact puck possession with his physicality and smart decision making, not to mention one of the best penalty killers in the league.
But Prust also put up points at a higher rate that he has for most of his career last season, and can we really expect that to continue?
In the following graph, the blue line is Prust's even-strength Fenwick percentage from 2008 to 2013, the red line is his team's even-strength Fenwick percentage without him on the ice, and the green line is Prust's offensive-zone start percentage, giving us insight into his usage and role. All statistics are at even strength, and all are rolling 10-game averages. What this means is that aside from the first 10 points in the graph, every point represents a 10-game sample, giving us a better grasp of trends.
With all that information on one graph, it can look a little messy and be tough to decipher, so I've included trend lines for each statistic. To understand the trend lines, blue turns into black, red turns into yellow, and green turns into purple. The x-axis is simply the games to represent time, and the y-axis is the percentage in decimal form, and the placement of the y-axis is the beginning of the 2013 season.
What you're seeing here is Prust's unlikely transition from an extremely sheltered fringe forward, into a heavily used defensive specialist, especially in New York. There were several stretches while Prust was a Ranger that he received fewer than 20% of his shifts in the offensive zone over 10-game periods, which is just brutal deployment. Prust's possession numbers collapsed the first time Tortorella tried that, but in the season before he went to unrestricted free agency he was able to handle it.
Obviously Prust's possession numbers go down the more defensively he's used, but they have stayed relatively strong considering that usage for two straight years now, rarely dipping below 45% Fenwick, indicating that Prust's game has taken a big step forward during that time, as he's rounded out his defensive game.
Prust did see a sharp drop in his numbers upon returning from a separated shoulder, but considering his comments after the playoffs, it's abundantly clear that he came back too early. The hope is that he doesn't fight as often as last year with Parros around, not only to stay healthy, but because he makes the team much better.
Prust was rarely used on the fourth line last season, as the Canadiens seemed to always have a member of the top-nine out with an injury, but if this season goes well, he will be the main player that the fourth line is built around, creating a sacrificial unit with heavy defensive deployment, which lightens the load on the rest of Therrien's team. Barring injuries, this means Prust may get less ice time than last season, so his production could fall a bit. 20 points is likely a reasonable expectation.